Nina Tappin (RPT, BScPT).
There are no other sports apart from climbing that demands an excruciating amount of strain to human fingers. We load these tiny joints, ligaments, tendons, bones and skin with such high forces, and so repetitivity, in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways.
Our climbing fingers deserve some TLC!
Some interesting facts:
- Pulley Strains are the most common finger injury amongst climbers. (Volker Shoeffl, One Move Too Many, 2016)
- Crimping places maximum tension on A2 pulley (Volker Shoeffl, One Move Too Many, 2016)
- Our tendons and joints are bathed in fluid, the fluid exchange between all these tissues is crucial to repair, regeneration and adaptation.
- Our fingers are mainly made up of collagen which is a tissue composed of water, nutrients and scaffold type cells that gives strength and structure to our skin, ligaments, joint capsules and tendons. There is no muscle tissue in our fingers, therefore, less fluid pumping action coming from them (apart from our hand muscles).
The following recommendations are some of the easiest Physio exercises and tips to fit into your daily routine whether you are climbing or on a rest or work day, as they are practical and do not take up much time. These exercises and tips are aimed at promoting fluid exchange amongst tendons and joints, as well as, maintaining mobility of the finger joints and tendons. This routine is good to start if you are new to climbing or if you have been climbing for years and have developed some joint and tendon stiffness.
I like to do the routine in this order but it is not crucial to do so.
1- Massage for Fluid Circulation & Tissue Manipulation
Apply some form of skin care cream, wax or oil and massage the muscles of your hand first to access the bigger blood vessels in the hand and/or forearm muscles to then shunt to the non muscular fingers. Then massage the carpal tunnel (lower flat bit of the wrist and hand). You can use a wave tool to gently “scrape” inside to outside of hand, palm and carpal tunnel. Then massage fingers gently in strokes and little “frictions” (smaller rubs but with gentle pressure). Do not massage too hard or for too long as you can over sensitized nerves and tender tissues. You can rub along the length of the fingers and all along the line of the finger joints, but do so gently.
2 -Passive Hook for Joint & Extensor Hood Stretching
A “hook” position for the fingers and hand helps maintain finger joint mobility, finger joint synovial fluid secretions and flexibility of the tendons at the back of fingers (extensors) in a way that often gets neglected with climbers.
Bend (flex) your finger joints down and push backwards through your nail beds towards the back of your hand while bracing the back of your knuckle joints, so the lower knuckles move backwards (extend) while the tip and middle finger joints bend (flex). Hold this pressure for 3-10 seconds as tolerated. Aim to feel a mild to moderate pressure and stretching through your joints and/or tendons. Do a few times (2-3 x) each finger. This can be done during climbing routes and boulder problems as long as you are going for light pressure. This can be done after climbing sessions or on rest days applying light to moderate pressure.
3- Extension Joint Mobilisation
This is to stretch the finger joints opposite to #2. Some people are “hypermobile” (move their joints past 0 degrees extension) and do not have to do this, however, for those who are stiff with straightening and bending their fingers this can be useful. Use your thumb, index and middle finger of one hand to mobilise the finger joints of the other hand. Place your thumb right above the crease (joint line) of a finger joint and push backwards towards the back of your hand while bracing with your fingers of the mobilising hand. You are opposing the pressure from your thumb and fingers to create and extension glide/movement at your joint. Hold this for a few seconds and repeat to the other joints of your fingers. Repeat a few times (2-3 x) to each joint during and/or after climbing sessions. The purpose again is to promote joint fluid exchange and to maintain joint mobility.
4- Finger Extension Strengthening
A practical way is to extend your fingers using an elastic band or a piece of theraband. You can explore with slow and fast contractions, and holding for endurance and recruitment (10-45 secs). You can use a light band when warming up or wanting to train endurance, or, you can use a heavy resistance when you want to train strength (get a pump within 3-15 seconds) or power (do a fast contraction outwards and slow release).
Another practical option is to extend your wrist backwards and open and close your fingers and thumb in a straight position. Do 10-30 open and closing of fingers and try to extend fingers back as well as much as your flexibility will allow.
Other options are using a rice bucket, where the rice offers a resistance with some compression around the finger joints which can be quite therapeutic for sensation, as well as a mild compression sensation around the joints which can be nice for swollen joints. Wax baths and warm or cold water can work in a similar way.
*** See a hand therapist if you have persistent finger joint swelling.
If you have access to a deep, wide bucket of rice, then this is a great way to work your finger extensors. Dip your hands in (the deeper the harder), extend your fingers and push the rice away, a bit like flicking the tips of your fingers. (Hopefully you won’t make a mess!)
Do fast and slow reps. You can work finger extension holds by digging deep in, extend fingers and lift up against the weight of the rice. Aim for a pump in your forearm extensors 30-90 sec x 3 reps 1-3 sets. You could also do these exercises while resting between hangs in a fingerboard dead hanging session.
5- Finger Flexor Tendon Stretching
A lot of climbers have tight or short finger flexors. This is not a major problem unless you are extremely limited in extension (the opposite way to flexion) at your fingers, hand AND wrist.
It is a good idea to keep on top of flexibility and stretching but aiming to have “perfect” flexibility is not necessary and often over stretching can be problematic more than helpful. If one over stretches too often (everyday with long holds of 60 secs + repetitively) in positions that are extreme for that person (very strong feeling stretch, esp. at tendons) then one can place overloading strains to tissues much like when one overload tissue through a strengthening exercise. Some people require extreme flexibility like gymnasts and contortionists so stretching and flexibility will obviously be a big part of their program, however, rock climbing requires much more strength to weight focus despite needing a decent amount of flexibility. The flexibility requirements for climbing are not extreme. One can opt to static stretch, or also tone and strengthen in directions that challenge their flexibility and in some regards this may be more effective than static stretching alone.
Muscle and tendon flexibility should not be emphasised before climbing and sport, only after, or, on a separate day to climbing. Warm your soft tissues by exercise, or even a hot bath or shower can be sufficient. Static stretching for flexibility (holding a moderate intensity stretch for longer than 10 seconds) dampens neuromuscular reflexes needed for sport, so best to do this sort of flexibility work after sport and exercise.
One way to stretch finger and wrist flexors in a non strenuous, graduated way is to use a table. Turn your wrist creases to face forwards (supinate your forearms) place your palms as flat as tolerated onto the table with most or some of your fingers off the edge of the table (to take some tension off the flexors). Ensure your elbows are not locked out into extension (straightening); if you feel a decent stretch in the forearms then stay here for 15-30 sec, come out and shake out, then replace and repeat. Or, if you no longer feel the stretch then try inching your fingers onto the table and either place your hand flat or allow for some bend in your fingers and the heel of your hand does not have to touch the table. Look for a light to moderate stretch sensation in your forearms and hold that for 10-30 sec and repeat or try to go flatter next time if this eases off. Remember to unlock your elbows again (have a slight bent) and to look for the stretch in your forearm muscles and NOT your wrist tendons or elbows. If you feel your fingers stretching then make sure this is a light sensation. Stretches are to be held 30 sec 1-2x.
Remember that you can make great flexibility gains by working strengthening your finger extensors as recommended above with benefits of strengthening your opposing muscles. Another great way to improve flexibility is to tone the muscles your stretching in a stretched position. So, you could press and hold into this stretch on the table with your finger and forearm flexors and/or eccentrically (load in stretched positions) load your flexors in a light intensity way example like in a push up and/or straight arm plank type positions described in other parts of the Core Climber Programs.
Nina Tappin (RPT, BScPT) – has been treating sports injuries since she graduated from McGill University, Canada in 1999 and is a member of the U.K. ACPSEM (Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Sport & Exercise Medicine) and has her Silver level of accreditation. She has a wealth of experience in treating rock climbers, university athletes, and general orthopaedic cases. She has a special interest in injury prevention amongst children and females in sport. She is also interested in advising women who are pregnant, and/or recovering from birth on how to exercise, and climb safely.